Should the life of an artist affect how you appreciate his (important) message?
Most of you had no idea who Nate Parker was until just recently. Unfortunately, many of you also probably had no idea who Nat Turner was, outside of a bar or two in a few hip hop songs, or an early History lesson.
The latter is a former slave who led a revolution in Virginia in 1831. The repercussions of that revolt and its affect on race in this country can still be heard reverberating off of apartment complexes, prisons, and schools from Baton Rouge to Milwaukee and every other American city with a vowel in its name.
Hence, Nate Parker wrote, directed and starred in a film about Turner called The Birth Of A Nation — naturally also the title of a silent-era film lionizing the racist Ku Klux Klan (amongst other things). The most recent The Birth Of A Nation was the darling of the Sundance Film Festival where it garnered the kind of attention that only single women at fantasy football conventions can relate to.
The film earned a record $17.5 million distribution deal from Fox Searchlight as well as the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize. This isn't the first time film distributors have bought a film just so that a competitor wouldn't get it, but you'd guess by the dollar amount and accolades that this is a movie worth seeing.
However, a tricky thing happened between Sundance and your local theater.
A Google search of Nate Parker and his co-writer Jean Celestin revealed that they were arrested and tried for rape, stemming from an incident while they were undergrads at Penn State in 1999. Let me see if I can couch this any more delicately.
I'll let you read about the case on your own, suffice it to say that Parker was acquitted and Celestin was found guilty of sexual assault, but acquitted upon a retrial. Madame Noire has a good rundown of the details.
Naturally, this left the film distributor in spin-control mode for a film they predicted would have the kind of Oscar buzz typically reserved for a British actor playing a transgender historical figure with a melancholy outlook and a can-do attitude. I know we spent all of last Academy Awards season VERY concerned with who won the Oscar, but it's not a real measure of the best or most important movie.
But various scandals should not prevent you from seeing this film. The message is too important.
To be clear, the internet is up in arms about two other facets of Nate Parker's person, too: 1) he said he'd never play a gay character and 2) his wife is Caucasian. I'm a cisgender white man from a middle class upbringing, and I'm not interested in telling people what they're permitted to be upset about, but these points seem like minor quibbles compared to the specter of sexual assault, rape culture… and suicide.
Variety interviewed the brother of the woman at the heart of the Penn State “incident," and he revealed that she killed herself in 2012. Irrespective of the awful details regarding “the night of," we do know that a woman is dead, and nothing brings life into exceedingly sharp focus like death. What now?
A well-done Nat Turner biopic is important. One review even referred to it as a Black American Braveheart. Regardless of it nailing every detail of nearly 200-year old events, there are too many gangrenous contemporary racial issues for the story to be ignored. It's imperative that there's a way for all people to access this crucial part of America's history and a book or a documentary wasn't going to cut it.
Contemporary rhetoric has green-lit the ad hominem attack as a modern debate tool to the point that you rarely hear it invoked as a disqualification of an argument. That is to say, we're so wrapped up in everyone's identity and experience that we can't divorce either from their ideas or art. At some point, in almost every adult's life, they realize that their heroes are hypocrites at best, and monsters at worst.
However, that does not mean we can't admire some philosophies or ideals of an imperfect or possibly even awful person.
It's not worth anyone's time to cite examples of bad things that truly good people have done. Nor the examples of spectacular work that the real scumbags of Spaceship Earth have created. Movies (and TV) are the most important storytelling medium of our time — possibly ever. Thus anything even tangentially to do with them is a gigantic business.
That's why I appreciate that it's spectacularly painful to monetarily support someone you find reprehensible.
So how do we support The Birth Of A Nation, and the important history it so compellingly contains, without necessarily supporting Parker?
I loathe the idea of pirating anything; it doesn't just hurt directors, producers, studio execs, and movie stars, but also people who serve lunch and roll up. I suppose, however, that it's an option.
You could also, conceivably, pay for a different movie and pulls a switcheroo. Sure, the theater is agnostic, but the studios aren't going to stop making and distributing Zach Galifianakis-Kristen Wiig team-ups because of your misappropriated $12.50. It's very possible without support that movies like this may not.
Wait for it to hit Netflix? Great, but now we're splitting hairs.
Certainly, you could donate twice the ticket price to a rape survivor's charity or figure out real and proactive way to assuage your guilt. Anyone planning on being New York in September can see a stage version of the story at the New York Theatre Workshop. Whatever the case, there are important messages which outweigh the supposed loathsomeness of their messenger.
The Birth Of A Nation, in its brutal, delusional and terrifying grandeur may be a critical cultural artifact in understanding our modern world even if you may deplore the man who made it.
Here are some other outstanding editorials on the saga, from different viewpoints than mine. I am sharing them because I know there are no easy answers to such a vexxing and complicated situation.